One of my big regrets is missing the concert with György Kurtág and his wife Márta back at the Southbank Centre some ten years ago. We've lost Márta now, yet at ninety eight, György is still composing, there are plans for a new opera after the success of his take on Samuel Beckett's Endgame. He wasn't present, but we could feel him in the Grand Hall.

It's taken days to truly digest the concert at the Royal Academy of Music, a full performance of Kurtág's Játékok. Meaning 'Games' in Hungarian, his inspiration is children and the fun they have in play. What follows is a remarkable broad palette for mostly two grand pianos. We got to see the sheet music for this will pieces (though the lovely Bach transcriptions were not displayed), the names of each work and directions in Hungarian, German and English. This was such fun, each brief piece was a mere page or two. All together throughout the day, there were four hundred pieces, in an immense six and a half hours of music.

My utmost respect to the students who played throughout and Joanna MacGregor, head of piano at the academy. Her playing was noteworthy for his humour and viscous moments left me stimulated. I felt the warm support she gave each pupil playing together or as a solo. Each student offered something different, clear and sharp in their approach. In the score, a delight was seeing Kurtág's scribbled circles to dictate a tone cluster, usually full hands or forearms on the keys. Later these sadly disappeared in later sets, I would assume to a digital format being used or just a change in style. One note-worthy work was Bored, the pianist stood up and walked back and forth around the piano casually playing as they went, indifferent to what was played per se.


Serious meets the downright silly, the spirit of Erik Satie loomed large. Being the completionist I am, I wanted to take in everything. This durational day, had an ease about with little discomfort. Countless moments had a stillness and subtlety to them, compositionally very slight, with a large impact. The Hommage to Tchaikovsky mimics the famous opening to his Piano Concerto though now with hair-raising tone clusters. It's quite clever as you can still get the feel for the score, another nod to Stravinsky's Petrushka is also evocative.

While most of the first sets were played on score upon tablets, later on we saw the sheet music in physical form, now larger than the standard. A considerable amount of parts are greetings to friends, colleagues and other composers. A few are for his wife, several are for birthdays of note, longevity is a reoccurring theme within here. It is the kalidescope of techniques required to play that shine through, yet one could feel children could play at least a fraction of this odd collection. A Hommage to Scarlatti gets a second outing years after the first was written, though very different in tone.

Aside from the pianos are some brief movements for clarinet viola with piano, simple in its offering. Percussions, that of a bass drum and tam-tam had little usage, though the bars they were heard added drama and depth. The organ gets a fleeting stoplight, not as compelling, though the acidic respects paid to teacher Oliver Messaien was a standout. Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit got a stellar arrangement, a firm choice for me out of the Bach. Of note is Kurtág's later uteslaition of the upright piano. He's given it it's own place in the concert space and we had two framing the stage with us at the auditorium level. This later dreamy use of the middle pedal added an ambient nature to everything he writes. I was lost in a trance as things went on and on.

Taking on board the most recent tenth volume was completed in 2021, the reoccurring themes of nature, memories, puns, meta humour and surreal imagery have never left him. A babysitter dancing on the carpet is another random recollection.

This will remain a highlight of the year. So many ideas and inspiration abound.

Review: James Ellis Photo: Akos Stiller